A balance sheet on Hugo Chávez

Submitted by Matthew on 27 June, 2013 - 12:15

The death of Hugo Chávez earlier this year provides the opportunity for a balance sheet on his rule and what it signified for socialists. Workers’ Liberty contends that Chávez was a “Bonapartist” politician who remained to his death within the bounds of capitalism, whatever his rhetoric about socialism and “Bolivarian revolution”. Pablo Velasco contributes the first of a serious of four articles.


Marxists understand capitalism as a mode of production in which capital exploits wage labour. These dominant social relations of production determine the class structure of different states across the globe and shape other forms of oppression and domination.

Capitalism generates a working class, the agency with both the material interest and the social capacity to challenge the system and replace it with socialism.

The form of exploitation under capitalism is principally what Marx called “the dull compulsion of economic relations”, although these relations are inevitably backed by bourgeois states. The separation of the economic and the political means that capitalists have economic and social power as a result of their ownership and control of the means of production, though they do not necessarily rule politically, either alone or indeed at all at times. Capital’s general interests can be safeguarded by a variety of political state-forms, ranging from bourgeois-democratic republics through to fascist and military dictatorships.
To understand the particular nature of the current Venezuelan social formation, it is necessary to know its specific political economy, which rests heavily on the production of oil. As Thomas Purcell has argued in a recent Science & Society article, “the peculiarity of the Venezuelan state derives from its role as the nation’s landlord”. Under capitalist social relations and monopoly ownership, “the Venezuelan state can charge a royalty to international oil capital to produce on its subsoil”. This revenue “takes the form of ground-rent, a portion of surplus-profit that capital must cede to the landowner for access to a non-reproducible natural resource”.

Venezuela has been a major exporter of oil for almost 100 years, generating huge fiscal resources (ground-rent) separate from domestic production and taxation. The historical development of this feature of Venezuelan society has been termed “rentier-capitalism”.

Venezuela has the world’s largest oil reserves. Around a half of its oil is sold to the United States, amounting to one in seven barrels imported by the US. This explains the close and interdependent relations between the two states and the manner in which Venezuela was integrated into capitalist circuits. These social relations and the resulting rentier state were developed under the Gomez dictatorship (1908-35) and continued under Marcos Pérez Jimenez (1952-58). They underpinned the Punto Fijo regime between 1958 and 1998, when Venezuela was a “partyarchy” in which the Acción Democrática party (AD) and the Christian Democratic party (COPEI) alternated in power.

According to the Financial Times (6 March 2013) the Venezuelan state has spent more than $1 trillion of oil revenues over the past 60 years, with a third of that spending taking place since Chávez came to power. These continuities are fundamental. The Venezuelan state is still a capitalist institution, moulded by an historical legacy of oil rent.

Lenin said that a democratic republic was the best political shell for capitalist development.

Freedom of the press, assembly and organisation give different fractions of competitive capital opportunities to resolve their interests at the level of the state and to uphold their legitimacy and hegemony over other classes. These forms aid capital to promulgate free trade and the free movement of commodities (and labour), which best serve their mode of exploitation. Bourgeois-democratic forms are also the best terrain to organise a mass labour movement, providing the “light and air” for political debate, ideological clarification, legal strikes and open organisation.

However democracy is not a necessity for capitalist development — as proven by the history of the last two hundred years and in the present in places like China.

Marx produced a brilliant, pioneering analysis in his book The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852) to understand the “Bonapartist” form of bourgeois rule.

Marx analysed why in certain situations of crisis where the balance of class forces is disrupted, the bourgeoisie ceded its political power to a military figure in order to preserve its social power. Marx explained how such a regime elevated the army as the saviour of society, balancing between a range of class forces (in this case from lumpenproletarians to peasants) who are rallied behind a highly centralised and seemingly independent state. Marx defined the essence of the Bonapartist regime as the “rule of the praetorians”, in which the military fused and incorporated a coalition of class actors to rule in the long term interests of capitalism (though sometimes acting against particular fractions of capital).

Engels later generalised Bonapartism, applying it to Bismarckian Germany, where the bourgeoisie also lacked the qualities to rule directly itself and so the militarised state acted as arbiter between contending classes. He argued that Bonapartism was the normal form of the modern bourgeois state. Marx and Engels also regarded Simon Bolivar — one of Chávez’s inspirations — as the caricature of a Latin American Bonaparte. Bonapartist forms persisted long into the 20th century, particularly in the newly emerging states.

Leon Trotsky extended the category of Bonapartism to both pre-Nazi Germany and 1930s France. He defined Bonapartism as “a regime in which the economically dominant class, having the qualities necessary for democratic methods of government, finds itself compelled to tolerate — in order to preserve its possessions — the uncontrolled command of a military and police apparatus over it, of a crowned “saviour”. This kind of situation is created in periods when the class contradictions have become particularly acute; the aim of Bonapartism is to prevent explosions” (Again on the question of Bonapartism, March 1935).

Trotsky produced a pioneering application of Bonapartism to Latin America with analysis of the post-revolutionary Mexican social formation, particularly under Cardenas in the 1930s. He wrote:

“In the industrially backward countries foreign capital plays a decisive role. Hence the relative weakness of the national bourgeoisie in relation to the national proletariat. This creates special conditions of state power. The government veers between foreign and domestic capital, between the weak national bourgeoisie and the relatively powerful proletariat. This gives the government a Bonapartist character sui generis of a distinctive character. It raises itself, so to speak, above classes. Actually, it can govern either by making itself the instrument of foreign capitalism and holding the proletariat in the chains of a police dictatorship, or by manoeuvring with the proletariat and even going so far as to make concessions to it and thus gaining the possibility of a certain freedom toward the foreign capitalists. The present policy [of the Mexican government] is in the second stage; its greatest conquests are the expropriations of the railroads and the oil industries.” (Nationalised Industry and Workers’ Management, 12 May 1939)

Latin American Marxists also used Bonapartism to understand particular regimes such as Peronism in Argentina and the Cuban regime under Batista. Others built on Trotsky to analyse the origins, development and decline of the PRI regime in Mexico. It is on these very solid theoretical foundations that the Bonapartist characterisation can be applied to Venezuela under Chávez.

How should Hugo Chávez’s regime best be understood?

In many respects — coming to power after the collapse of the old party system, a period of acute economic crisis, the central role of the military, the appeal to wide sectors of the population, including those excluded from the previous regime — Chavismo strongly resembles classical Bonapartism. The privileged and prominent role of military officers is not an accidental or ephemeral feature of the Chávez movement; it is essential to it. Chavismo began as a clandestine movement within the armed forces in 1982, with the formation of the MBR-200, and was consummated with the coup attempt in 1992.

Richard Gott, one of Chávez’s most sycophantic English-language fellow travellers, has confirmed the centrality of the military in his books, In the Shadow of the Liberator (2000) and Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian revolution (2005). Gott (2005) quotes one senior economic adviser, who told him: “The military are everywhere. It sometimes seems as though there is a secret project that you don’t quite know about. There really is a military party”.

Gott (2005) says Chávez has “sought to bring the military into civil society, but not as gorilas [i.e. not as brutal repressors]”. Chávez recognised that “the military have been going further than mere social work. They have been incorporating themselves, little by little, into the political leadership of the country, though not into party politics”. Gott argued that Chávez stood for the tradition of the “military road to socialism”. The bitter truth is the contrary: there is no military, or bureaucratic or indeed any road to socialism from above. Gott is wrong and the scepticism towards the military in Latin America (and elsewhere) is absolutely justifiable and borne of bitter experience.

Chávez in power transformed the armed forces into the dominant institution in Venezuela and substituted his personal control for the previous institutional arrangements. The Constituent Assembly changed Venezuela‘s constitution, lifted the prohibition barring military involvement in politics and granted active-duty members of the armed forces the right to vote (which had been denied under the 1961 constitution).

Chávez took control of military promotions and was able to put his supporters into key positions, while eliminating opponents. In his account of the defeat of the coup in April 2002, Gott makes the following observation (2005): “The coup had collapsed within two days, destroyed by just the alliance between soldiers and the people that Chávez had been so painstakingly constructing over the previous three years.” In fact Chávez told him: “It was because of the contacts that had been made between the military and the poorest sectors of society that the people supported the army.” After the coup, Chávez forced 60 generals and admirals into retirement, strengthening his group on the armed forces. As Gott puts it: “The armed forces were now more solidly behind the president than before”.

There was a strong and unconcealed militaristic bias in Chávez’s government from beginning to end. The military was present in the cabinet, in the management of state-owned enterprises and social programmes, and in running regional governments. Chavismo contravened the trend in Latin America of containing rather than expanding the role of the military in governance.

Greg Wilpert, editor of the informative pro-Chávez website Venezuelanalysis confirmed the centrality of the military to Chávez’s project. He argued in his book Changing Venezuela by Taking Power (2007) that Chávez’s talk of “civilian-military unity” was not just for show. Of the 61 ministers in Chávez’s governments between 1999 and 2004, 16 of them (26%) were military officers. After the 2004 elections, of the 24 regional state governors, 22 were Chavistas and 9 of them (41%) were military people.

Reliance on the military has been central since the start of the administration and continued to expand. Javier Corrales and Michael Penfold (Dragon in the Tropics, 2011: 147) argued that in 2008 eight of twenty-four governorships and nine of approximately thirty cabinet positions were held by active or retired career officers. And according to the Financial Times (7 April 2013), in Chávez’s last administration “former military officers run 11 of the 20 state governorships held by Venezuela’s United Socialist Party, and account for a quarter of the cabinet”.

Chávez relied on hundreds of military officers seconded to positions in the public administration to enforce his authority over the state bureaucracy. The role of the armed forces in development activities also greatly expanded under Plan Bolívar 2000, which channelled large amounts of social welfare funding away from civilian agencies and towards the military garrisons in each Venezuelan state.

Gott (2005) highlighted the central idea of chavismo — the alliance between soldiers and civilians. A clear indication of this was Plan Bolívar 2000, launched shortly after Chávez’s inauguration in February 1999. The first stage (Pro-País) involved the armed forces in providing social services, the second (Pro-Pátria) involved the military helping local people, and stage three (Pro-Nacíon) involved economic self-sufficiency and endogenous development. As a result, the armed forces became involved in infrastructure construction, repairing schools and hospitals and even the sale of consumer goods at cut-rate prices in popular markets in an attempt to hold down inflation.

The inflated role of the executive arm, what some have called “hyperpresidentialism”, is also evidence of Chávez’s Bonapartism.

The 1999 constitution extended the presidential term from five to six years and allowed for immediate re-election, which was previously barred. The president appoints his own vice-president and has no prime minister — and has sole power over military promotions and a significant say in the appointment of judges.
Greg Wilpert acknowledged this facet of his regime. He wrote (Venezuela’s New Constitution 2003): “Another area of criticism of the 1999 constitution is that it has centralised presidential power even more than the already somewhat presidentialist constitution of 1961. The increased presidential powers include the ability to dissolve the National Assembly, following three votes of non-confidence by two thirds of the National Assembly, declare state of emergency, freely name ministers and their area of responsibility, the extension of the president’s term from five to six years, and allowing for an immediate consecutive reelection”.

In 2004, Chávez increased the number of Supreme Court justices from 20 to 32, packing the court with loyalists. He also undermined the autonomy of the National Electoral Council (CNE) that oversees national elections, for example by determining the timing of referendums and elections to suit his movement. Despite losing the referendum in 2007 on extending standing again for the presidency, he managed to win a later vote allowing for continuous re-election of all public officials, including himself. This concentration of power in the hands of the executive allows the Bonapartist politician to balance between competing social forces and establish their own hegemony.

For the fourteen years he was in power, Chávez administered a bourgeois state and never threatened capitalist relations of production.

He had significant business backing when first elected and his first finance minister had occupied the same position under the previous government. Steve Ellner pointed out in his book Class, Conflict, and the Chávez Phenomenon (2008) that in the first years of his administration, Chávez “maintained a dialogue with the private sector and invited numerous businessmen to accompany him on trips abroad”. Ellner recognised that “measures approximating neoliberalism” were implemented, such as “austere fiscal policies, overvaluation of the local currency, and the retention of the neoliberal-inspired value added tax with the aim of avoiding inflation and shoring up international reserves”.

Chavista governors and mayors (“the boligarchs”) grant contracts to capitalist groups for public works. Widespread corruption has facilitated the rise of new bourgeoisie, known as the “boliburguesía”. As Thomas Purcell points out in Historical Materialism journal (2011), the Venezuelan bourgeoisie dominates the internal market, particularly the area where economic growth is concentrated – the service-sector. As a result, they still command a strong position in the process of national social reproduction. According to the Venezuelan Central Bank, in 2008 the domestic private sector controlled 90% of all imports and 95% of all domestic manufacturing.

Benedict Mander argued in the Financial Times that multinationals didn’t really hate Chávez (7 March 2013). He wrote: “The truth is, however much Chávez may have liked to rail against capitalist enterprises, a lot of foreign companies, especially those producing consumer goods, have been doing a rollicking business in Venezuela in recent years”. When Chávez died, the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal carried condolences from almost all the big players in the automotive industry, including the local branches of General Motors, Toyota, Chrysler, Volvo and MMC (a joint venture between Hyundai and Mitsubishi). Other international companies with a big presence in Venezuela like Huawei, Nestle, Mary, Kraft, Telefonica, Avon, BBVA and Mastercard also paid their respects.

The Chávez government’s economic policy was rhetorically anti-neoliberal, but in reality Venezuela continued to participate in the global capitalist economy, did not confront multinational capital or foreign creditors and Bolivarian technocrats in state-owned enterprises applied market imperatives to those firms.
Although Chávez’s Bonapartism was disenfranchised much of the old ruling bourgeois class — hence their hostility to him — his rule was compatible with other fractions of capital and with the general interests of capital as a whole, which is ultimately about making profits from the exploitation of waged labour.